The Impossibility of the Ideal Church

I’m doing a little writing project on Paul’s conception of the church and have been reflecting on some recent online discussions about the church – its virtues, its faults, its necessity, and its possible dispensability.

I’m struck by how I resonate with people who write critiques of the church. And I tend to agree with those who write pointed responses.

There’s clearly much to be said about the church and our experiences with communities of God’s people.

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I was reminded of this passage in Life Together in which Bonhoeffer reflects on the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual communities we encounter:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.

21 thoughts on “The Impossibility of the Ideal Church

  1. Andrew

    I’ve asked others this before, often to be met with hostility but ‘Why is it valid to believe there is such a thing as “Paul’s concept of ‘Church“? That seems like a presupposition.

    What is our basis for believing ‘Church’ is not the invention of a patristic theologian but actually part of Pauline theology?

    If one looks at Paul’s concept of church, shouldn’t one at least provide warrant for believing this exists?

    ([Hebrews 2:12] quotes [Psa 22:22]. Compare the translation of the Greek from [Heb 2:12], with the translation of the Hebrew of [Psa 22:22] into English. Why do they differ?)

  2. Haddon Anderson (@HaddonAnderson)

    This challenged me greatly, especially this quote, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

    I’ve witnessed this unhealthy dynamic in my own heart. I can long for my vision of the “ideal” church, but it seems like it reaches a point where it becomes idolatrous. It just leads to disillusionment.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. aj41429

    I also have a question about calling that thing called ‘church’ in Paul’s theology a “concept”. It seems Bonhoeffer’s point in the passage you cite is that there is only one church – and it is the one that actually exists, not the one we or our pastor (or Paul) ‘long for’ or ‘conceive of’. Might it be better to say that God’s grace enables us ‘to discern the reality’ which is the body of Christ (1 cor 11:29), rather than ‘to properly conceive of the church’ (as if we could carry it around in our heads)?

    1. timgombis

      Thanks — I’m not claiming that it’s merely a “concept.” The project I’m working on involves how Paul discerns corporate dynamics of conflict and how to press toward resolution. I’m only trying to get at how Paul thinks about the church in the broadest sense. Certainly it’s a reality and not a mere concept.

      1. gaudetetheology

        “how Paul discerns corporate dynamics of conflict and how to press toward resolution. ” — That sounds like a very interesting project that I’d like to hear more about. I’m dealing with similar themes in a more general context as part of my thesis on mimetic ecclesiology: identifying examples of ecclesial rivalry and trying to propose ways to shift rivalry to reconciliation.

      2. Andrew

        Certainly it’s a reality and not a mere concept

        Notwithstanding the assertion above, what is our warrant for believing that it is a reality and not a mere concept?

        Paul speaks of particular ‘assemblies’ or ‘congregations’ in his letters, certainly, and yet that isn’t sufficient evidence to provide a basis for believing ‘ecclesiology’ is warranted – given that ‘ecclesiology’ goes well beyond mere ‘congregations’.

        The other complicating factor is that ecclesiology appears first as a doctrine with the patristics historically. The patristics however, were were committed to ‘Replacement Theology’ and ‘anti-Semitism’. As a consequence the patristics were motivated to invent an corporate entity to replace ‘Israel’.

        By projecting an invented entity onto the text, the patristics were able to create a corporate distinction separate from ‘Israel’ which minimized, replaced and eliminated Israel’s role as promise receiver of the New Covenant [Rom 9:4][Heb 8:8] theologically. (The impact of Replacement Heresy on Christianity orthodoxy is fairly well known in theology circles and not my own invention).

        So if Paul really did have a concept of church which was not a mere concept, there should be evidence of this prior to the patristics in his own work which doesn’t abuse the meaning of the original Greek.

      3. timgombis

        I think it’s possible to speak of how Paul counseled these congregations in his letters without embracing replacement theology or being anti-Semitic.

      4. Andrew

        Agreed – but that wasn’t the point.

        The point was: “Does Paul’s counsel (to these congregations) provide sufficent warrant to establish an ecclesiology?

        Whether one embraces replacement theology (or anti-Semiticsm), or not, is inconsequential to the bigger matter of attributing to Paul a theology he didn’t in fact posses or articulate. It’s not obvious Paul’s concept of Church was anything more than literary necesssity born of geographic reality.

        That said, Paul’s sense of ‘body of Christ’ seems warranted; but even there it could be his way of speaking about the coming Kingdom of David [Mark 11:10], now become Christ’s (which some also conflate with ‘church’ without warrant).

      5. timgombis

        I didn’t use the term “ecclesiology,” though I don’t avoid it. You may be assuming I mean something that I don’t intend by my use of the term “church.”

        My project assumes that Paul wrote letters to communities of Jesus-followers analyzing community conflicts and exhorting them to be unified. As I read his letters, I don’t see that I need to justify that he’s doing this. It seems pretty straightforward off the face of the page. I may be missing something, but I don’t see what.

        I agree that early fathers thought about the church in a way that inappropriately marginalized Israel, but I’ve nowhere indicated that this is what I’m doing.

      6. Andrew

        That’s a fair comment except that people are not careful about using the English word ‘church’ (or more commonly capitalized “Church”) in theological discussions. The bible wasn’t written in English – so use of the word ‘church’ often carries baggage, specifically (presupposed) ecclesiological baggage.

        Your comment implying care with Paul’s purpose of addressing specific communities and their needs is appreciated – nevertheless speaking of the ‘Ideal Church‘ or ‘Paul’s concept of ‘church’ implies something more, something unbound by specific context, something plainly ecclesiological.

        That said, even if the term ‘church’ carries baggage, more work needs to be done on the corporate elements of Paul’s theology: kudos to you for advancing this. If we were able to peer through the patristic veneer of ‘church’ to see the coming ‘Kingdom of David’ more clearly as Paul and likely Yeshua saw it, perhaps our ‘theology of the corporate’ would derive great benefit.

  4. Tim Cole

    Great quote from a great man. Thank you.

    After 30 years of Shepherding people with a team of fellow Elders, it seems to me that the single most important factor contributing to the emotional health of a believer or a marriage or a congregation is the humility and grace to live with unrealized expectations. A recent book, entitled, “What Did You Expect?” is the one book I ask all marriage candidates to read. Marriage, the ministry, life in His Body, and life itself is a day-to-day encounter with failed expectations, dreams that never got off the runway.

    Where do all those dreams come from, Herr Professor?

    1. timgombis

      It’s a very similar dynamic to marriage in that we inevitably cultivate desires and dreams, but rather than receiving the goodness from a spouse (and a church community), we make them an object — the demanded agent through which we must receive blessing. Those expectations are inevitably crushing.

      1. Tim Cole

        “…inevitably…must… inevitably…”; only three words–yet a recipe for unrealized expectations and in the aftermath either anger or depression. Well said, Herr Professor.

        I might add to your, “receiving goodness from a spouse”–which is spot on–to ‘seeking to serve the needs of our spouse rather than expecting our spouse to serve us’. ‘Christ loved the Church…gave…’

      2. eric boothe

        Are we not to have dreams of what a community shaped by the dynamics of The Kingdom of God should be about? What should our actions look like when such a community turns from cruciformity?

      3. timgombis

        Hey Eric! There’s loads to say about the church, and I haven’t said it all in this one post. I think communities need to be striving toward cross-shaped practices constantly, but also recognize their shortfalls and their need of grace — both from God and from one another. It’s good to dream about what a community could be, but often those dreams become the lens through which to see how everyone in the community isn’t doing what the could do to produce the dreamed-about ideal. That’s when a dream becomes an oppressive idol.

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